Fascinating book. Its argument for the functional role of religion has much to offer for our own interest in “re-spiritualising society”. The detailed grounding of religious belief and organisation in evolutionary group-selection and the rich set of examples are the analogy of neuroscience (and positive psychology) for buddhist ontology: a modern scientific and utilitarian grounding for ancient wisdom and tradition.


Of Hutterites and Bees - or the organismic metaphor for religious groups has substance

True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal gathering honey.

—Ehrenpreis [1650] 1978, 11

Religious believers often compare their communities to a single organism or even to a social insect colony. The passage quoted above is from the writings of the Hutterites, a Christian denomination that originated in Europe five centuries ago and that currently thrives in communal settlements scattered throughout northwestern North America. Beehives are pictured on the road signs of the Mormon-influenced state of Utah. Across the world in China and Japan, Zen Buddhist monasteries were often constructed to resemble a single human body (Collcutt 1981).

The purpose of this book is to treat the organismic concept of religious groups as a serious scientific hypothesis. Organisms are a product of natural selection. Through countless generations of variation and selection, they acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.

Definition of Spirituality - connection to something bigger than ourselves

Spirituality is in part a feeling of being connected to something larger than oneself. Religion is in part a collection of beliefs and practices that honor spirituality. A scientific theory that affirms these statements cannot be entirely hostile to religion.

[Ed: I really like this definition of spirituality and religion]

Chapter 1: The View from Evolutionary Biology

Group selection can work and is a big deal

Social control, rather than highly self-sacrificial altruism, appears to solve the fundamental problem of social life at the individual level. An entire lexicon of words describing social control in human life has been borrowed to describe genetic and developmental interactions; “sheriff” genes, “parliaments” of genes, “rules of fairness,” and so on. The laws of genetics and development, which originally referred merely to general patterns, have acquired an eerie resemblance to the other meaning of the word law—a social contract enforced by punishment.

What works for individuals can also work for social groups. In their drive to explain highly self-sacrificial altruism, sociobiologists have tended to ignore an even more important question: Does benefiting the group require overt altruism on the part of individuals? If not, then group selection can favor mechanisms that organize groups into adaptive units without strong selection against these mechanisms within groups.

I use the word “overt” because a close look at social control mechanisms shows that they differ from altruism only in degree and not in kind. Returning to our bird example, suppose we discover that warning calls are indeed risky and help others at the expense of the caller. If they were performed voluntarily they would qualify as altruistic, with all the self-sacrifice implied by the word. Then we discover that they are not performed voluntarily because birds that fail to call are severely punished by other birds. Calling no longer qualifies as altruistic, but we still must explain the evolution of the punishing behavior that makes calling selfish. Punishers cause birds to issue warning calls that help everyone in the group, including free-riders who do not share the cost of enforcement. We have not solved the problem of altruism but merely moved it from the calling behavior to the punishment behavior. Economists call this a second-order public goods problem: causing another to perform a public good is itself a public good (Heckathorn 1990, 1993). There is, however, an important difference between the two kinds of altruism. The individual cost of enforcement can be much lower than the individual cost of issuing a warning cry. Social control can be regarded as a form of low-cost altruism that evolves to promote behaviors that would qualify as high-cost altruism if they were performed voluntarily. Elliott Sober and I call this “the amplification of altruism” (Sober and Wilson 1998, chap. 4). In general, social control mechanisms do not alter the basic conclusion that group-level adaptations require a corresponding process of group selection. Instead, they partially relax the trade-off between group benefit and individual self-sacrifice, allowing among-group selection to act without strong counteracting within-group selection.

The concept of organisms as social groups has transformed our understanding of multilevel selection in several ways. First, never again can it be said that higher-level selection is always weak compared to lower-level selection. Single organisms such as you and I are shining contradictions of that statement. Second, higher-level selection has always appeared unlikely because it has been linked with self-sacrificial altruism. Social control mechanisms cut this Gordian knot by partially relaxing the trade-off between group benefit and individual cost. Social control mechanisms are obviously relevant to religious groups, which are based on much more than voluntary altruism. Third, it is inconceivable that higher-level selection stops at the level currently known as individual organisms. Selection at the level of social groups is likely to be an important, if not a dominating, evolutionary force in thousands of species. In some cases such as the social insects, the groups are so thoroughly integrated that they deserve to be called organisms in their own right, as Wheeler (1928) suggested long ago and as modern social insect biologists such as Seeley (1995) increasingly acknowledge.

Against this background, the organismic concept of human groups receives new life. Thirty years ago, evolutionary biologists would have dismissed the Hutterites’ comparison of their communities to bodies and beehives as the worst kind of naive group selectionism. Now it is a vivid dot on the scientific radar screen.

Human Groups as Adaptive Units: we are naturally egalitarian

As Konner states in the passage quoted above, evolutionary biologists have tended to regard ancestral human groups as mere collections of self-interested individuals, exhibiting nepotism and niceness toward those who can return the favor but by no means qualifying as societal organisms. Multilevel selection theory makes it appear more likely that ancestral human groups were potent units of selection (Boehm 1999; Sober and Wilson 1998).

First, some empirical facts. Anthropologists don’t agree on much, but they appear to agree that modern hunter-gatherer societies around the world are remarkably egalitarian. The most impressive fact is that meat is usually scrupulously shared. The successful hunter and his immediate family get no more than the rest of the band. The most careful studies have weighed the meat on portable scales as it is divided into portions (Kaplan and Hill 1985a, b; Kaplan, Hill, and Hurtado 1984). Even when averaged over a period of weeks, there was no bias in favor of the actual procurers of the meat. Gathered items are shared less fully, but only in comparison to meat; the same study that reported 100 percent sharing of meat reported approximately 50 percent sharing of gathered items. If a number of people are gathering, it may make little sense to put the harvest together just to divide it again, so the sharing of gathered items must be evaluated differently than the sharing of meat.

Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism extends beyond food to social relationships. The request “take me to your leader” would be met with incomprehension, or perhaps ridicule, by a hunter-gatherer. There are no leaders other than those who have earned the respect of their peers by being models of good conduct, and who can only advise and not dictate. When the British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard attempted to identify leaders among the Nuer (a pastoralist rather than a hunter-gatherer society but similar with respect to egalitarianism), all he could find was someone called the leopard-skin chief who turned out to be a specialist in conflict resolution, about whom more will be said in and [6].

Hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, not because they lack selfish impulses but because selfish impulses are effectively controlled by other members of the group. This form of guarded egalitarianism has been called “reverse dominance” by anthropologist Chris Boehm (1993, 1999; see also Knauft 1991). In many animal groups, the strongest individuals are usually able to dominate their rivals, taking a disproportionate share of the resources. This is within-group selection pure and simple. In human hunter-gatherer groups, an individual who attempts to dominate others is likely to encounter the combined resistance of the rest of the group. In most cases even the strongest individual is no match for the collective, so self-serving acts are effectively curtailed. Boehm’s survey of hunter-gatherer societies includes many examples of reverse domination, ranging in intensity from gossip, to ridicule, to ostracism, to assassination.

The Chewong - a concrete example of moral-religious rules to maintain group cooperation

On the other hand, the concept of human groups as moral communities fits nicely with the emerging paradigm of major transitions, in which groups become unified by a regulatory apparatus that promotes the welfare of the group as a whole without necessarily requiring extreme self-sacrifice of its members. An example will show how a real hunter-gatherer society accomplishes this, using mechanisms that border upon religion.

The Chewong are a tribe that inhabits the rain forest of the Malay peninsula (Howell 1984).13 They combine hunting and gathering with shifting agriculture, and they display the same kind of egalitarianism as pure hunter-gatherer societies. The distribution of food and other scarce items is governed by a system of superstitions known as punen, which roughly means “a calamity or misfortune, owing to not having satisfied an urgent desire”:

In the Chewong world, desires are most likely to occur in connection with food. If someone is not immediately invited to partake of a meal which he observes, or if someone is not given her share of any foodstuff seen to be brought back from the jungle, that person is placed in a state of punen because it is assumed one would always wish to be given a share and hence [that not being given a share would lead one to] experience an unfulfilled desire. . . . To “eat alone” is the ultimate bad behaviour in Chewong eyes, and there are several myths that testify to this. The sanction on sharing out food originates in the myth about Yinlugen Bud, who was the chief instrument in bringing the Chewong out of their presocial state by telling them that to eat alone was not proper human behaviour. (Howell 1984, 184)

This passage suggests that the superstitions, myths, and gods of Chewong culture are intimately related to a matter of supreme practical importance—food sharing. In addition, the punen system goes beyond beliefs to include social practices that virtually assure an equal distribution of food:

The Chewong take all possible precautions against provoking punen. All food caught in the forest is brought back and publicly revealed immediately. It is then shared out equally among all the households. The women cook it and then share the food in equal proportions among all the members of their own household. As soon as a carcass is brought back, and before it has been divided up, someone of the hunter’s family touches it with his finger and makes a round touching everyone present in the settlement, each time saying “punen.” . . . This is another way of announcing to everyone present that the food will soon be theirs, and to refrain from desiring it yet awhile. If guests arrive while the hosts are in the middle of a meal, they are immediately asked to partake. If they refuse, saying that they have just eaten, they are touched with a finger dipped in the food, while the person touching says “punen.” (185)

Although food is virtually always in short supply, other non-foodstuffs can be scarce or common depending upon the time of year or other circumstances. The punen system is sufficiently flexible to include items only when they are scarce:

Thus bamboo for baking the tapioca bread must be shared equally among all households if the gatherer had to go very far to obtain it. If the bamboo grows close to the settlement, one may collect enough for oneself only. The difference is expressed as bamboo far away (lao tyotn) or bamboo nearby (lao duah). If the nearby river dries out and water has to be carried some distance, it again has to be shared, but daily water collection from the usual source need not be shared. . . . Even if one does not want something that has been brought back, one has to be made publicly and specifically aware of the existence of the thing, by touch if not by receipt of an actual share. (185–86)

Chapter 2: The View from the Social Sciences

  • Durkheim was right: functionalism is a good interpretative approach to religion
  • Evans-Pritchard was actually a functionalist
  • Lots of good example from Evans Pritchard re Nuer (Table 2.3)
  • Table 2.4 has evidence from Somé (1997) on Dagara

Chapter 4: The Secular Utility of Religion: Historical Examples

Example 1: the Water Temple System of Bali

Example of Subak water system which involves a rich religious system that underpins an extraordinary (and very effective) solution to a basic collective action problem: how to share out the water from the crater lake among the rice farmers.

Lansing’s analysis of the metaphysical side of the water temple system is as instructive as his analysis of the practical side. In addition to the temples and deities, there is an important concept of holy water that symbolically represents the interdependence of the social units that interact with each other. As with Calvinism, these metaphysical elements are not a veneer but evidently are required for the system to work in a practical sense. Religious belief gives an authority to the system that it would not have as a purely secular institution (Rappaport 1979). In general terms, this authority is stated in a manuscript kept at the temple of the crater lake: “Because the Goddess makes the waters flow, those who do not follow her laws may not possess her rice terraces” (Lansing 1991, 73). The same principle is used in more specific ways to collect taxes from each village.3 In the minds of Balinese farmers, the authority of religion appears to be experienced as sincere belief, as Lansing discovered in the following conversation with a subak head:

Lansing: Where does the authority of the Jero Gde come from?

Subak Head: Belief . . . overflowing belief. Concerning Batur temple—really that is the center, the origin of waters, you see. At this moment, the Jero Gde holds all this in his hands. At the temple of Lake Batur. (77)

The water temple system of Bali perfectly illustrates the general theme of this book because it combines a religion that is extravagantly otherworldly with one of the most basic human activities required for survival and reproduction—the acquisition of food. If this isn’t what Durkheim meant by the secular utility of religion, what is? In addition, the water temple system provides insight on some of the major conceptual themes developed in earlier chapters. In chapter 1, I discussed the fact that groups must be defined separately for each trait. Organisms, in the strong sense of the word, are a group of elements that behave adaptively with respect to many traits, but a group can also be organismic with respect to some traits (e.g., predator defense) and not others (resource conservation). Human social groups span the same continuum; sometimes they are all-encompassing, but usually they are more narrowly defined, and in addition individuals function as members of many groups. The water temple system is a remarkable adaptation to multiple group membership that involves a separate church for each grouping, complete with its own congregation, deities, and obligations, but within a larger religious system that adaptively relates the groups to each other.


Isolation is a design feature

In chapter 2, I described Iannaccone’s (1992, 1994) prediction that strict religions become strong by isolating their members from the rest of society and by making internal cooperation the only game in town. Isolation is a design feature of the religion, not an external constraint. The history of Judaism provides many examples of this general principle. Isolating mechanisms such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, dress, language, and specific laws against sexual and social interactions are well known. Here is one example from the Synod of Frankfort in 1603: “If it is proven that any Jew has drunk wine in the house of Gentile, it shall be forbidden for any other Jew to marry his daughter, or to give him lodging, or to call him to the Torah or to allow him to perform any religious function” (Finkelstein 1924, 260).

Brilliant at in-group cooperation

According to Darwin’s basic scenario for group selection, cooperation is a fragile flower as far as within-group interactions are concerned, but cooperative groups robustly outcompete less cooperative groups. If Jewish communities were exceptionally cooperative by virtue of their religion, compared to the societies with which they interacted, this would give them an advantage in any endeavor that requires coordinated action. Their survival amidst other nations—at least in the absence of persecution—would be assured.

The theoretical expectation that Jewish communities should be highly cooperative is amply confirmed by the historical record. Let us begin with the benign aspects of cooperation, as we did with Calvinism. Jewish communities throughout history have been legendary for their absence of crime, poverty, alcoholism, and other social problems. Practicing Jews are justly proud of these accomplishments, as indeed they should be. The following passage is from a book on anti-Semitism from a Jewish perspective:

In nearly every society in which the Jews have lived for the past two thousand years, they have been better educated, more sober, more charitable with one another, committed far fewer violent crimes, and had a considerably more stable family life than their non-Jewish neighbors. These characteristics of Jewish life have been completely independent of Jews’ affluence or poverty. As the noted Black economist Thomas Sowell has concluded: “Even when the Jews lived in slums, they were slums with a difference—lower alcoholism, homicide, accidental death rates than other slums, or even the city as a whole. Their children had lower truancy rates, lower juvenile delinquency rates, and (by the 1930s) higher IQ’s than other children. . . . There was also more voting for congressmen by low income Jews than even by higher income Protestants or Catholics. . . . Despite a voluminous literature claiming that slums shape people’s values, the Jews had their own values, and they took those values into and out of the slums.” (Prager and Telushkin 1983, 46)

What religion or society wouldn’t want to boast about these accomplishments? Prager and Telushkin stress again and again that the virtues of Judaism reside in the religion, not the people. Assimilated Jews quickly fall prey to the ills of the surrounding society. This interpretation is fully consistent with my own account of religion from a multilevel perspective. Groups require a strong moral system to function adaptively, and Judaism provides an exceptionally strong moral system.

And in-group cooperation facilitates (successful) inter-group competition

Cooperation within groups is easy to admire, but the very same cooperation becomes morally ambiguous in the context of between-group interactions. We have seen that the Hebrew Bible instructed Jews to behave honorably toward outsiders in some contexts but also to use their cooperation as a weapon against other groups. Did this double standard continue during the Diaspora? And what should we expect on the basis of multilevel selection theory?

Jewish history is not as simple as a displaced people struggling to survive amidst hostile neighbors. Jewish groups survived and even prospered through specific activities and relationships with different elements of their host nations. From a purely actuarial standpoint, periods of prosperity were required to balance the catastrophic declines caused by persecution.

A common pattern was for Jews to form an alliance with one gentile segment of the host nation, usually the ruling elite, to exploit another gentile segment, such as the peasantry. Far from being anti-Semitic, the ruling elite would attempt to protect the Jews from the rest of the resentful host population. This kind of relationship is illustrated by Joseph in the biblical account of the sojourn in Egypt:

Joseph intercedes with the pharaoh on behalf of his family: “Then Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land . . .” (Gen. 47:11). However, the account also emphasizes Joseph’s role in oppressing the Egyptians on behalf of the king. Joseph sells grain to the Egyptians during a famine until he has all of their money. He then requires the Egyptians to give their livestock for food and finally their land. “The land became the Pharaoh’s; and as for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other” (Gen. 47:20–21). However, regarding the Israelites, the section continues: “Thus Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.” (MacDonald 1994, 114)

We do not know if this account is factual, but similar alliances with the ruling classes existed throughout Jewish history. Katz (1961, 55) describes the situation in sixteenth- through eighteenth-century Europe: “Since Jewish society was segregated religiously and socially from the other classes, its attitude toward them could be purely instrumental. . . . The non-Jew had no fear that the Jew would take a partisan stand in the struggle between the rulers and the ruled, who bore the economic yoke of the political privileges enjoyed by the rulers.” The Jew’s outsider status was an advantage as far as the rulers were concerned. This is a bleak picture from a broad-scale moral perspective, but it is exactly what we should expect from the largely amoral world of among-group interactions.

Many Jewish laws established an economic double standard with the same clarity that the Hebrew Bible prescribed military conduct toward other groups. The following example is from Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah (book 13, The Book of Civil Laws, chap. 5:1, 93; quoted in MacDonald 1994, 148):

It is permissible to borrow from a heathen or from an alien resident and to lend to him at interest. For it is written Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother (Deut. 23:20)—To thy brother it is forbidden, but to the rest of the world it is permissible. Indeed, it is an affirmative commandment to lend money at interest to a heathen. For it is written Unto the heathen thou shalt lend upon interest (Deut. 23:21).

To pick another example from more recent times, Ashkenazi Jews were not allowed to underbid other Jews for franchises or to interfere with Jewish monopolies of gentile resources, to avoid losing the “money of Israel” (Katz 1961, 61). I don’t mean to imply that Jewish communities during the Diaspora invariably adopted an instrumental attitude toward members of other groups. In fact, their ability to act as corporate units may have enabled them to manage their reputations in cooperative intergroup relations more successfully than other groups, since dysfunctional groups have such poor control over their members that they are unable to maintain a reputation, even if they want to. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Jewish communities during the Diaspora frequently engaged in economic between-group competition, and that their strong religion gave them the decisive edge that comes when more cooperative groups compete against less cooperative groups.

Early Christianity

Just a few items here, primarily the graphic depiction of what life was like in the period where Christianity was born:

Chaotic it was. Most of us imagine the typical Roman city as like the movie set for Ben Hur, but in fact they were incredibly crowded, filthy, and prone to catastrophic disaster. Stark lists the disasters that befell the city of Antioch:

During the course of about six hundred years of intermittent Roman rule, Antioch was taken by unfriendly forces eleven times and was plundered and sacked on five of these occasions. The city was also put to siege, but did not fall, two other times. In addition, Antioch burned entirely or in large part four times, three times by accident and once when the Persians carefully burned the city to the ground after picking it clean of valuables and taking the surviving population into captivity. Because the temples and many public buildings were built of stone, it is easy to forget that Greco-Roman cities consisted primarily of wood-frame buildings, plastered over, that were highly flammable and tightly packed together. Severe fires were frequent, and there was no pumping equipment with which to fight them. Besides the four huge conflagrations noted above, there were many large fires set during several of the six major periods of rioting that racked the city. By a major riot I mean one resulting in substantial damage and death, as distinct from the city’s frequent riots in which only a few were killed.

Antioch probably suffered from literally hundreds of significant earthquakes during these six centuries, but eight were so severe that nearly everything was destroyed and huge numbers died. Two other quakes may have been nearly as serious. At least three killer epidemics struck the city—with mortality rates probably running above 25 percent in each. Finally, there were at least five really serious famines. That comes to forty-one natural and social catastrophes, or an average of one every fifteen years. (159)

To make matters worse, the people that filled Roman cities belonged to a diversity of ethnic groups that hated each other. Not only did walls surround the city of Antioch to keep out unfriendly forces, but they also existed within the city to divide ethnic factions, which included Macedonians, Cretans, Cypriotes, Argives, Herakleidae, Athenians, Syrians, and Jews (157). As expected on the basis of the previous section of this chapter, the Jewish segment of the population expanded markedly as the city grew (Meeks and Wilken 1978). I cannot improve on Stark’s final summary of the urban social environment that formed the background for early Christianity:

Any accurate portrait of Antioch in New Testament times must depict a city filled with misery, danger, fear, despair, and hatred. A city where the average family lived a squalid life in filthy and cramped quarters, where at least half of the children died at birth or during infancy, and where most of the children who lived lost at least one parent before reaching maturity. A city filled with hatred and fear rooted in intense ethnic antagonisms and exacerbated by a constant stream of strangers. A city so lacking in stable networks of attachments that petty incidents could prompt mob violence. A city where crime flourished and all the streets were dangerous at night. And, perhaps above all, a city repeatedly smashed by cataclysmic catastrophes: where a resident could expect literally to be homeless from time to time, providing that he or she was among the survivors. (160–61)

Against this background, early Christian society must have looked very good indeed. For any coherent culture to survive amidst such chaos, it must possess some kind of an isolating mechanism. The analogy to a biological cell is instructive. Cell membranes allow wonderfully complicated self-sustaining processes to take place inside the cell amidst a larger outside world of chaos. The organismic concept of groups encourages us to look for something similar—a culturally defined membrane that allows highly organized self-sustaining social interactions to take place within the group amidst a larger world of chaos. We have seen that many forms of Judaism possess a cultural membrane that is difficult to leave or enter. They persist to this day because their social physiology enables them to survive and reproduce so well in their larger environment. Perhaps the most radical innovation of the early Christian Church was to provide a membrane and a social physiology comparable to Judaism for anyone who wanted to join, regardless of their ethnicity. This combination of permeability with respect to membership and impermeability with respect to interactions is a remarkable piece of social engineering. Anyone could become a Christian, but those who did were expected to overhaul their behaviors under the direction of a single God in a close-knit community that could easily enforce the new norms.

Culture and reproductive success

The behaviors prescribed by the early Christian Church were far more adaptive than those practiced in the surrounding Roman society. We commonly assume that the sex drive and the natural urge to have children will automatically result in babies. No one has to tell a population to grow; it simply does grow as long as resources are available. As strange as it may seem, Roman culture developed in a way that became hostile to biological reproduction, despite the availability of resources. Part of the problem was extreme male domination and a form of status-striving that made marriage and families unattractive prospects for males. Female infanticide was so common that Russell (1958) estimated a sex ratio of 131 males per 100 females in Rome and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Preference for sons can be adaptive at the scale of a single patriarchal lineage competing with other lineages, but it can have disastrous consequences at the scale of the whole society.11 Of course, Romans had a sex drive like everyone else, but they found ways to satisfy it in ways that did not lead to reproduction, such as homosexuality and nonreproductive heterosexual practices. Women who did conceive often did so in circumstances that caused them to get an abortion, itself a life-threatening operation. We are familiar with all of these practices in modern life but seldom think about their consequences for population growth. If we did, we might see some of them as solutions to the modern problem of overpopulation. For the Romans, these practices led to a crisis of underpopulation. Julius Caesar attempted to stimulate reproduction by awarding land to fathers of three or more children and considered legislation outlawing celibacy. Similar policies were attempted by subsequent emperors but to no avail. According to Boak (1955; discussed in Stark, 116) “[policies with] the aim of encouraging families to rear at least three children were pathetically impotent.” By the start of the Christian era, the Roman population had started to decline, even during the good times between plagues, and required a constant influx of “barbarian” settlers to maintain itself.

In contrast, the Christian religion, like the Jewish religion from which it was derived, expected marriage, abundant children, and fidelity in both sexes while outlawing abortion, infanticide, and nonreproductive sexual practices. When stated as a religious imperative and enforced by the social control mechanisms that come naturally to small encapsulated groups, Christianity succeeded at changing reproductive behavior as Roman law never could. Christian women raised more babies than their pagan counterparts.

Pro-social behaviour around plague and disease

Two plagues swept through the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of Christian history. Stark estimates that between a quarter and a third of the Empire’s population died in each case. No one at the time knew about germs, so it might seem that a plague would fell pagan and Christian alike. However, it turns out that simple nursing practices can make the difference between life and death for a disease such as smallpox or measles, which are suspected to have been the agents of the two Roman plagues. Simple provision of food and water for those too sick to cope for themselves can reduce mortality by two-thirds or even more by modern estimates (89). Pagans and Christians alike may have caught the disease, but they differed vastly in their response to it, as Dionysius described in a tribute following the second epidemic around year 260:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing upon themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. . . . The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom. (82)

Dionysius continued by describing how the non-Christians responded to the plague:

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

This is extraordinary level of altruism that represents a “miracle of psychological and social engineering”

Altruism and social dilemmas have been discussed so much by biologists and social scientists that the ideas have lost much of their force. For altruismwe trot out weary examples of birds calling at the sight of predators or soldiers falling on grenades. The most recent theories placemore emphasis on punishment and social control as solutions to social dilemmas than altruism, which seems eternally vulnerable to the free-rider problem.12 A plague forces us to confront these issues with less glibness. Imagine that you lived in Roman times and that people were dying horribly all around you. You don’t know about germs but you do know about contagion, which means that even the simplest act of kindness, such as helping a plague victim drink water, will substantially increase your own chance of dying a horrible death. Knowing all of this, what would it take for you to care for your own child? Your grandparent? Your neighbor? A total stranger? How about properly disposing of the dead, who are beyond help but whose festering bodies are spreading the disease? Can you imagine doing it because it is required by law and you will be sent to jail if you don’t? Or because women will regard you as sexy and your status will go up in the eyes of your peers? Something extraordinary was required to solve this social dilemma: not a divine miracle but a miracle of psychological and social engineering that Roman society lacked and Christian society provided.

As for the plagues, so for the rest of life. Christian society provided “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” (Johnson 1976, 75; quoted in Stark 1996, 84). Even the emperor Julian acknowledged this fact in a letter to a pagan priest: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (84). Julian saw the problem and tried to institute pagan charities to rival Christian charities, but the social dilemmas implied by the word “charity” are not solved so easily. Stark (87) invites us to read the following familiar passage from Matthew (25:35–40) and try to imagine how it must have appeared when it was a truly new morality:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

And it was discriminating altruism that prevented free-riding

We have seen that religion cannot survive on belief alone. A system of social coordination and control is also necessary to direct action and exclude the inevitable free-riders who are indifferent to belief. The Christian emphasis on charity and forgiveness often gives the appearance of unguarded and indiscriminate altruism. Did not the early Christians nurse and support the Roman sick and poor, in addition to their own? A closer look reveals a far more sophisticated social physiology than indiscriminate altruism, just as we saw in the cases of Calvinism and Judaism. At least three categories of people can be easily distinguished: brethren in good standing, brethren in poor standing, and outsiders. Brethren in good standing received the benefits of altruism that they were also expected to give. Brethren in poor standing were subjected to an escalated series of punishments ending in exclusion. It was the apostle Paul who said “Cast out the wicked from among you.” The early Christians did indeed extend a charitable hand to outsiders, in part to bring them into the church, but not to the degree that charity was practiced within the church. If there was truly no distinction between conduct toward insiders and outsiders, the first tiny Christian communities would have evaporated in no time. In addition, joining the church involved expensive commitments that can be shown theoretically to weed out free-riders (Iannaccone 1992, 1994).


To summarize:

  • Christianity combined openness to new members, evangelism (great advertising) and strong intra-group preferneces and support.
  • Roman society was actually shrinking due to preferences for male children and sex practices. Christianity by contrast had a variety of values and practices that led to high levels of reproduction.
  • It was attractive to women who were treated more equally and given more opportunity than in Roman society (important both because women were scarce and because this is a great talent pool that was underused in rest of society). “Thus, not only did Christian women have more offspring than pagan women, but Christian society included a higher proportion of women than pagan society. Part of the rise of Christianity can be attributed to biological reproduction, pure and simple.”
  • Christianity generated key pro-social behaviours that led to lower mortality rates from plagues and disease
    • In-group altruism including self-sacrifice is central to Christianity e.g. the central narrative is that of Christ’s death and sacrifice for all Christians
    • Millenarian aspect (“imminence of kingdom of heaven”) encourages longer-term thinking for the afterlife
  • Mini-welfare state: built in generosity and mutual assistance
    • Also an advertisement to non-Christians

Behaviour during plague is a perfect example of exceptional pro-social behaviour brought about by a powerful belief system and strong community.

Chapter 5: The Secular Utility of Religion - Modern Literature

Korean Church in Houston

[Ed: clear, modern demonstration of material benefits of religion]


… A recent study of a Korean Christian Church based in Houston, Texas, provides a needed antidote to Iannaccone’s list (Kwon, Ebaugh, and Hagan 1997). Members of the Houston Korean Church consist largely of recent immigrants to the United States, many of whom arrive penniless, homeless, friendless, and unable to speak English. By joining the church they are immediately welcomed into a social network that offers friendship, help, and solid opportunity. As an ethnically based church, it can cater to the special needs of its members. New arrivals are aided in buying a vehicle, finding housing, obtaining job referrals, baby-sitter referrals, Social Security information, and translating services, making airport pickups, making and receiving visitations for new babies and hospitalized members, registering children for school, applying for citizenship, and dealing with the courts; the list of material benefits goes on and on.1 New members frequently are employed by more established members who own businesses and who also gain from the arrangement. The following autobiographical account summarizes the tremendous material benefits received by one member:

When I came to Houston, I did not know a single person here. I had only about $200 in my pocket. As I arrived, I went to a Korean church. I knew that the church was able to find me a job. Soon, they found me a position in a restaurant which was operated by a church member. He allowed me to eat as much as I wanted and to sleep in his restaurant at night . . . that’s how I saved the money to start my “road sales” business. I continued to attend the church. Later, when I opened my shop, many church members came to my shop as customers. (Kwon, Ebaugh, and Hagan 1997, 254)

It might seem that this person had only material benefits in mind, which provided all the incentives needed to join such a church. However, by now we should be suspicious of this conclusion. As we have seen, the practical side of religion does not negate the spiritual and metaphysical sides; they go together and reinforce each other. Members of the Korean Christian Church obtain psychic benefits that are regarded as just as important as material benefits, including emotional support, a sense of belonging, and respect that is lacking from their position in American society. Here is a description of Mr. Kim, who came to America before the Houston Korean Church existed but who nevertheless joined as an already successful businessman:

Mr. Kim, who came to Houston from Korea 20 years ago, said that when he was working from 5 A.M. to 11 P.M. seven days a week, he simply did not have any time to ponder his emotional needs. After he had established himself as a prominent businessman in Houston, he started to feel depressed and bored. He began to attend the Korean Christian Church and become part of a cell group that, as he described, “saved” him from his emotional problems. Through the church, he found friendship, a sense of belonging, and “the reason for being,” which he had forgotten since his arrival in America and during his struggles to establish himself. (252)

Mr. Kim may also have profited financially from church members who became employees and customers, but I am prepared to accept his testimonial at face value. I do not think that people are driven entirely by material interests, much less material self-interest (Sober and Wilson 1998; Wilson and Sober 2001). I find it plausible that Mr. Kim eagerly shared his wealth with others and traded dollars and cents for a sense of belonging. The need for respect is especially poignant. Mr. Son, a sixty-eight-year-old deacon of the church, was a college professor in Korea but was turned away by American universities and ended up opening a flower shop. I find it plausible that the respect accorded to him as church elder was more important to him than material benefits. He may well have become poorer to earn respect. In part because respect is a basic human need, especially valued by Koreans and in especially short supply for Korean immigrants, the Houston Korean Church includes a large number of “official” positions that grant a formal status to their holders.2

Needs to adapt for the future (or will disappear)

[Ed: nice analogy with the sense of cultural evolutionary pressure - what is adaptive at one point may be no longer. Need to evolve].

The cell group ministry works so well that it is being considered for adoption by other Christian denominations, just as the social organization of Calvin’s church was copied five hundred years ago. However, it does have the effect of preventing Korean immigrants from being fully assimilated into American society. Perhaps for this reason, it is less popular among second-generation Koreans, including this young man, who describes the religious involvement of his parents: Church, home and work, that’s all they have. That’s their whole life. They go to work in the morning, come home at night, go to church or talk to someone they know from church in the evening, and so on and on. They don’t have any motivation to know or even a notion in their head that there is a whole world out there, the world that they don’t know about and their children need to know about. (255) Thus, the very same church that provides opportunities for recent immigrants can limit opportunities for their offspring, a point to which I will shortly return.

Chapter 6: Forgiveness as a Complex Adaptation

Evolutionary analysis of Christian forgiveness

Forgiveness and the creation of nations

… [preceded by story of Pygmy transgression in which someone sleeps with his cousin and is ultimately forgiven …]

Retaliation, a lasting change in behavior, and forgiveness took place through an outpouring of emotions. The group weathered the storm and sailed along on a relatively even keel without anyone knowing that they were at the helm. This episode recalls Tocqueville’s description of small groups as so perfectly natural that they seem to constitute themselves.

Tocqueville appreciated that large societies are not natural in the same way. Something more must exist for a nation such as France or the United States to hang together. Furthermore, the “something” that in Tocqueville’s time held France together was different from the “something” that held the United States together, with important consequences for the vitality of the two nations. The “somethings” were a complex mix of psychological attitudes, informal customs, and formal social organizations that can be collectively referred to as culture. Of course, hunter-gatherer societies such as Mbuti also have a culture that is important for orchestrating their behavior. We are talking about differences in culture and not its presence and absence. Rather than calling small societies “natural” and large societies “unnatural,” we should simply say that they require different cultures to make them hang together as societies. The Mbuti do not have kings, courts, or constitutions. Larger nations do—and must—to exist at the scale that they do. Far from marginalizing culture, innate psychology provides the building blocks from which innumerable cultural structures have been built.

Mal-adaptation of Christianity (and the contradictions of the Gospels)

One remarkable fact is that the gospel writers so freely altered their most sacred story to adapt it to their particular needs. When it comes to altering a sacred story, it seems that nothing is sacred—at least during the early stages of religious evolution. Another remarkable fact is that the Four Gospels could be assembled into a single collection in spite of their massive contradictions. Even a child approaching the New Testament with a clear eye must wonder why Jesus preached successfully in his home town according to one version and was almost thrown off a cliff in another. There must be a sense in which religious belief is so concerned with using sacred symbols for utilitarian purposes that logical consistency and historical accuracy become secondary considerations. Despite its internal contradictions, the New Testament provides an arsenal of sacred symbols that can be selectively employed depending on the specific situation. As one example, Pagels (99) notes that the Gospel according to John, whose sect was most bitterly opposed to its surrounding social environment, has ever since been an inspiration and comfort to Christian churches that find themselves battling for their lives.

The very success of the Christian Church may also have limited the evolutionary flexibility that characterized its early stages. Once the New Testament was canonized, the only way to adapt to future environments was to select from an unchanging arsenal of sacred symbols. It was impossible to make the Romans the primary culprit for Jesus’ death, even though it would have made sense after the Romans became the primary enemy of the Church. In addition, it is entirely possible that the New Testament has predisposed Christians to hate Jews long, long after it ceased to be adaptive. In short, to the extent that Christian belief systems are not adapted to their current environments, they can cause inappropriate patterns of forgiveness and failure to forgive.

Universal brotherhood (is hard to do)

Having made this point, we must acknowledge that the exalted view of Christianity must also be tempered. Christianity and virtually all other religions fall short when judged by the loftiest standard of universal brotherhood. They merely adapt groups to their local environments. When they lift people out of poverty and desperation, they deserve our highest admiration. When they become agents of conquest and aggression, they remain exalted for their believers but deserve to be judged as immoral by outsiders who see the aggressors as part of a larger group. Perhaps universal brotherhood can be achieved by a religion or another social organization, but that is a challenge for the future. [emphasis added]

For me, the failure of religion to achieve universal brotherhood is like the failure of birds to break the sound barrier. Imagine that you discover a bird with an injured wing. By fixing its wing, you enable the bird to fly faster. Now imagine that you discover a bird that is perfectly healthy. It has been beautifully designed by natural selection to speed through the air at seventy miles per hour. However, you want to help it fly faster. Your task in this case will be much harder than fixing an injured wing. You will need to discover a design breakthrough that was missed by the natural selection process. Perhaps such a breakthrough is possible, but it will require more knowledge and cleverness than fixing a broken wing.

The ability of a group to function adaptively, like flight in birds, is a remarkable and complex adaptation. It is remarkable at the scale of face-to-face groups and even more remarkable at the scale of large modern societies. When we criticize a religion or other social system for failing to perform better or to expand its moral circle still wider, we often implicitly assume that the problem is like a broken wing with an easy solution. If only those Christians were less hypocritical about forgiveness, Christian society would run better and at a larger scale. I suggest that this way of thinking, however well intentioned, is misinformed and ultimately unproductive. Improving the adaptedness of society may require appreciating the adaptive sophistication that already exists. An evolutionary perspective can contribute to this understanding.

cf Brexit

[ed: cf the arguments re brexit. This is exactly my point. I favour universal brotherhood and I am also a realist. I also think the point about needing a breakthrough is correct. You need something to get to a bigger group level and i think that is a breakthrough in psycho-ontology]

A new cultural structure - cf AET

He concludes with an aspiration eerily similar to some of my hopes for art earth tech

Part of the religious temperament is to imagine a future vastly better than the present. In purely scientific terms this means finding a new cultural structure that is as miraculous in our eyes as Christianity was to Justin. I do not know if such a structure exists, but can anyone prove that cultural evolution has already run its course, that all symphonies have been written and all structures built? I think not.


Ode to a future culturology

Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience. They are adaptive responses, just as feathers are for birds and fur is for mammals. Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities; but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless actions within self-erected boundaries. —Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 91

This passage claims for culture in general what I have tried to show for religion in particular. I like it in part because its author does not study culture for a living. He is a distinguished psychologist best known for his research on individual experience. The passage merely reflects what for him seems common sense.

If the formal study of culture ever converges upon this common-sense view, as it should, at least three transformations will have taken place. First, the study of culture will be solidly evolutionary. Second, much of the evolution will be acknowledged to take place at the group level; you can’t talk about cultures having feathers and fur without talking about group selection. Third, human nature will be seen as something that evolves rather than as something we are stuck with. After all, nature evolves, so why not human nature? The first impulse of many evolutionary biologists would be to say that human nature does evolve, but too slowly to make a difference. They are thinking of genetic evolution, a limitation that vanishes as soon as genetic and cultural evolution are properly integrated with each other. By analogy, virtually all mammals, from mice to giraffes, have exactly seven neck vertebrae. I don’t know why this trait is so conservative in the mammalian line, but it has not prevented some mammals from evolving very long necks and others from evolving very short necks. Human traits can similarly be constant in some respects, such as the hypothetical innate psychology discussed in chapters 1 and 6, but offer so much flexibility in other respects that cultures can evolve to be as different from each other as mice are from giraffes, with new forms possible in the future that can scarcely be imagined in the present. It is ironic that evolutionary theories of human behavior so often give the impression of an incapacity for change.

[Ed: this chimes closely with my own interests and intuitions about the study of culture and its practical application. Culture can be consciously created – unlike genetics (at least for now!)]


[Ed: and an argument that understanding the utility of religious belief need not reduce the hold that its transcendent power has upon us]

… [I] think of society as an aircraft of our own making, which can fly effortlessly toward the heavens or crash and burn, depending upon how it is constructed. I am also encouraged by some of the examples of religious belief that we have encountered in the pages of this book, which combine a hard-headed factual realism with the profound respect for symbols embodied in the word “sacred.” Like the Nuer tribesman and Balinese farmer, let us know exactly what our unifying systems are for, and then pay them homage with overflowing belief.


Collcutt, M. 1981. Five mountains: The Rinzai Zen monastic tradition in Medieval Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Interesting database for cultures

When Elliott Sober and I wanted to say something general about group selection and human evolution, we chose a sample of twenty-five cultures at random from the Human Relations Area File, an anthropological data base designed for cross-cultural comparison (Sober and Wilson 1998, chap. 5).

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